The Newport Folk Festival
In his book “On the Road with Janis” writer/musician/road manager John Byrne Cooke speaks about the “folk establishment” back on the East Coast and the formation of the Newport Folk Festival. Folk musicians involved in that endeavor, according to Cooke, were folk “purists” who really had no interest in the ‘mass market’ performers such as the college campus groups (Brother’s Four, Kingston Trio) or pop chart folk artists such as Peter, Paul and Mary.
The organizer of the Newport folk event was George Wein, who was also the founder of the predecessor event the Newport Jazz Festival. Wein was firmly entrenched in the world of jazz, being a jazz musician, but had the insight to promote a folk event in the same spirit of the jazz festival. His initial folk board included Theodore Bikel, Oscar Brand, Pete Seeger and Albert Grossman. These figures, along with others from the pure folk community, selected Joan Baez, and Pete Seeger, but had the insight to include a diverse range of other genre artists to ensure public interest and financial success – and so artists such as Earl Scrugg and the Cumberland Gap, Odetta, Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry were included.
In later years, the board, probably against their instincts, opened the door for Peter, Paul and Mary (1963), Jose Feliciano (1964), and even the Chambers Brothers in 1965 along with Donovan.
Bob Dylan appeared first in 1963 and then again in 1964 to welcoming arms (a “discovery” of Joan Baez) but then in 1965 experienced some disdain from the attendees when he broke out the electric guitar.
This incident has been exaggerated with many attendees in ’65 testifying that the negative reaction from the crowd was on a small scale, so much so that some attendees don’t recall anything dramatic occurring beyond a few cat calls . Dylan would go on after Newport to begin his performances everywhere (backed by The Band) with an acoustic set opening and then a second-half electric performance.
His performances for a time were often met with some booing, and this bothered one member of the Band so much that he departed the tour. Not that he wanted to remain acoustic, but that he just couldn’t take the pressure of those negative concert goers. But yet, by accounts I’ve read, some in those audiences would boo when the electric guitars would be picked up by Dylan and company, but when he would break into songs such as “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Positively 4th Street”, the same naysayers would be clapping along to the rhythms.
Oh well.. What I found refreshing about that period of time was the recollection of that same Band member recalling that when fans would react in such a manner, Dylan displayed absolutely no reaction, just picked up the guitar, plugged it in, and did what he did best. Good for him! Glad he did….
Newport went by the wayside in the at the beginning of the 1970’s returning again in 1985. In most recent times the Festival has adopted a very PC like approach to its event, teaming up with all the usual protectors of us.
Dylan probably would be prevented today from going “electric”. The expectation being that an all solar performance would likely be the expectation….